DS9 was always darker than its sister series, and as it went along, it veered toward the pitch black, even relentlessly deconstructing Roddenberry’s previously sacrosanct idealism. Ferengi episodes became a regular tradition to lighten things up. This week’s episode, “The Nagus,” established that trend, although later, the writers would often hide revelations and observations inside the innocuous Ferengi hours to belie their importance. For now, as the show is still trying to figure out what sorts of stories it can tell, they’re just making with the funny.
The hour begins with the arrival of Grand Nagus Zek onto the station. What’s the Nagus? He’s sort of like the Pope crossed with Mark Cuban. As the head of the Ferengi Alliance, he occupies a strange place in the profit-obsessed culture: he doles out business opportunities, and yet expects free stuff from the pathologically miserly Ferengi. It’s the only time you’ll see Quark comp anyone. Zek arrives with his entourage, which includes his son Krax (who, despite the Nagus’ numerous appearances, we never see again), and his mammoth manservant Maihar’du. Zek seems to take an instant shine to Quark, praising the foresight it took to establish a bar on the edge of a stable wormhole. “He didn’t even know the wormhole existed,” protests a peevish Krax. “That’s what makes it so impressive,” Zek snaps. The Nagus is there to call a meeting of powerful Ferengi that he might announce the next phase of the Alliance’s business concerns.
Zek believes the Ferengi Alliance needs to expand into the Gamma Quadrant, reasoning that over there, no one’s ever heard of a Ferengi and, thus, they can be as dishonest as they like. Zek, however, is too old to lead the expansion. “I’m just not as greedy as I used to be,” he laments. (The other Ferengi attempt to reassure him of the unquenchable rapaciousness of his avarice, but he waves them off.) He names his successor, and it’s Quark. The assembled Ferengi freak out, and it’s not long before Quark is dodging assassination attempts. He does find time for one inspired Godfather parody, though, so that makes it all worthwhile. As it turns out, the culprits are Krax and Quark’s brother Rom, the former because he feels he should have been named Nagus, and the latter because Quark was being a total d--k to him. Zek reappears at the last minute and reveals that it was all a test to see if Krax was ready to take over. He failed. (“You don’t seize power! You accumulate it quietly, without anyone noticing. It’s like talking to a Klingon . . . ”) Quark, on the other hand, could not be more proud of his brother for demonstrating a ruthlessness that Quark never knew was there.
The character of Rom, especially the whole fratricide thing, is still not the gentle, sweet-natured Ferengi that would become the hideous-yet-lovable face of the Ferengi, like one of those dogs that’s so ugly it becomes kind of cute. The voice is right (though actor Max Grodénchik will keep slowing and deepening it throughout the series until his trademark line of “Moogie” is so baritone that only certain species of whale can hear it), but the character has a bit of evolving to do. Wallace Shawn plays the all-important role of Zek. Yes, Vizzini is the head of the Ferengi Alliance, and it’s just as wonderful as it sounds. The character walks a pretty incredible line, as he has to be convincing as a keen enough business mind to run a scheming empire, but funny enough to carry the jokes. While a lesser performer might not have been up to it (especially acting through a suffocating layer cake of old age Ferengi makeup), this is Wallace Goddamn Shawn. He’s amazing.
The view into Ferengi culture just as fun. After Zek fakes his death (a ruse Odo uncovers because, again, Odo is good at his job), we learn that Ferengi funerary customs dictate that a corpse is vacuum desiccated and sold in collectible pucks. We get a couple Rules of Acquisition, a running list of the aphorisms that Ferengi use to guide their culture. Quark quotes the first to his brother: “Once you get their money, you never give it back.” Quark quotes the second to the Nagus to defend a betrayal: “Never allow family to stand in the way of opportunity.” This also expertly foreshadows the culprits behind the assassination attempts, family both, one to Quark and the other to Zek. We get a view of a Ferengi meal, as well, which features both live and dead insect life (and learn that tube grubs are properly served chilled). In a somewhat darker revelation, we also learn that Nog, despite being older than 14-year-old Jake, can’t read. School earns no profit and is, thus, a waste of time.
This brings us to the b-plot. Commander Sisko is concerned about the friendship between Jake and Nog, and I’ve gone on record as being with the Commander on this one. The fascinating thing is that Star Trek is often a very racist franchise -- assuming that the races are fictional. Klingons are always warlike, Ferengi are always greedy, Romulans are always d--ks, and so on. DS9 does an admirable job of showing the variation that exists in its signature races, though it’s still in its infancy here, especially as Rom and Nog haven’t shown what black sheep they are yet. When Sisko tells Jake that he’s not the biggest fan of Nog, Jake points out that getting along with other cultures is pretty much the entire point of Starfleet. The kid has a good head on his shoulders. It’s proven even better when Sisko learns that his son has been sneaking off to give Nog reading lessons. Say it with me, everyone: “Awwwwww!” It’s a great moment, and it shows Sisko that one of his most cherished views is alive and well in the next generation. (No pun intended.)
It’s probably pretty obvious that I love the Ferengi. I find their values repellent, their culture backwards, their cuisine nauseating, but the fact of the matter is I own a copy of The Rules of Acquisition (as written and compiled by Quark and showrunner Ira Steven Behr). These are the kinds of episodes that truly encompass what Star Trek means to me: even people with whom you have nothing in common can be a lot of fun once you get to know them.
Next up: Odo learns not to take origin stories from strangers.